How To Help Your Child With Autism Communicate Their Wants and Needs

When kids can get their needs met, they have a social skill important for a successful future. An expert from Gateway Pediatric Therapy shares how to help them achieve this.

When a child with autism is able to ask for what they want, a world of opportunity opens for them to get their needs met. This may not come naturally, so it’s important for parents to help their child achieve this skill. “With a lot of kids, we see frustration that stems from not being able to communicate their wants and needs,” says Christine Morelli, Clinical Director for Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Sterling Heights.

Parents know their child best, and that knowledge extends to the most subtle aspects of their day-to-day life. If a parent always knows what their child wants, children may learn that there isn’t a need for them to ever learn to request.

As that child grows and begins to attend school, socialize, and spend time in the community, they need the fundamental skill of communicating — either verbally or nonverbally — when they want or need something, Morelli says.

“A lot of people think that communicating is speaking, but it’s so much more. It can include reaching for things, even just making eye contact. The earlier you teach these skills, the easier it will be for your child — and for your family — to get their needs met,” she says.

The best way to teach effective communication is to practice with your child’s favorite items in their most familiar settings. You can encourage your child with autism to learn effective ways to ask for their favorite toy, game, or snack. Practicing these skills in comfortable settings, like your home or a family member’s home, will encourage generalization and promote faster learning.

Clues your child is ready to learn

ABA therapists at Gateway Pediatric Therapy consider asking for desired items a fundamental skill, so they work with kids early and consistently on this goal.

“We always look for signs that indicate that children are ready to build on what they can already do,” Morelli says. “They might grab their therapist’s hand and set it on a toy, or using gestures like pointing or reaching might be a sign that they are ready to learn more.”

Each child is unique, so therapists work with families to recognize their child’s own individual cues. “Recognize the best way your child communicates. Are they pointing or gesturing? Are they using sounds? Identifying their existing communication skills will help start the process. Then think about a way to start teaching them how to request in a way that will be understood in other settings,” she says.

Suggestions for practice at home

If your child already has what they need at all times, there’s no incentive to learn how to ask for additional items. Set aside some time to work with your child. When setting up a train set, for instance, don’t allow unlimited access to pieces of the track. Instead, keep the pieces and encourage your child to ask for each piece as needed.

Or, if your child likes to play with a favored toy first thing in the morning, put it out of reach each evening so the child will have to ask for it. Be patient, consistent, and offer plenty of praise when they do ask. “Act excited about it. Pairing excitement and social praise with requests helps for a lot of kids,” Morelli suggests.

Share what you learn

“In my experience, the more support you have as a team, the easier it is to get through challenging moments. Share what works for you at home with your child’s ABA therapist so everyone is on the same page,” Morelli says. “Parents have a lot of information about their child that will help us work with their kids more effectively.”

Learning how to ask for what they want will help your child grow and thrive at school, when forming relationships, and when working with others. “Any time a child can increase their communication, it’s likely to help them flourish in so many ways,” Morelli says. “Now they have a voice.”

Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at 11 locations in Michigan. For more information, visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.

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